He swayed in the quiet, his manuscript in one small hand, and read aloud about the pineapple lamp. A truck rattled the classroom’s gothic windows. Glancing toward the noise, he saw the two, banished from row-desks for shooting paper clips at Mrs. Stumpf’s ass.
Starrett’s eyes, crushed to lines by fat, shifted dangerously to Kosek’s. And seeing that, Joshua Gibbons heard for the first time, as if through their ears, the terrible girly-ness of his imagery, of his reading voice. Of the entire enterprise of poetry. He might as well have been dressed in pink. For this they would attack.
Mrs. Stumpf never before had him read his work to the class. His poetry had been a private affair between them, with one exception: Last year she’d submitted his Cheetah—about an escapee from the Bronx Zoo—and he’d been named the entire school district’s Poet Laureate. But The Pineapple Lamp was so well-written, she said that morning, he’d have to share it after lunch. Now, as he read about his father buying the ornate lamp in Miami and its delivery to their Bronx apartment, bile and tuna fish clawed Joshua’s throat.
Rudy Gibbons, three years dead, played trumpet for the Cavaliers’ Big Band. They’d been entertaining the ’58 insurance convention at the Fontainebleau when his heart stopped. In mourning, Joshua’s mother would curl up in his bed and read him Oliver Twist or Moby Dick or poems in an anthology from her days, long-interrupted, chasing a master’s degree at NYU. Dickinson. Browning. Eliot. Shelley. In her husband’s dress shirts, she, Celia Gibbons, read herself and her boy to sleep.
He wrote poems for her in his school loose-leaf, echoing styles she’d read, and she said she loved them. Later, after his mother stopped sleeping in his bed and began dating a barber, Mrs. Stumpf found one of his poems on the back of an assignment.
“Your father was a musician?”
“Yes, Mrs. Stumpf.”
“So this is your music.” He nodded, though he knew his poetry flowed from his mother. “Will you show me more?” He did and she would mark his work with pen strokes, speaking over his head about scansion and forms or clicking “too, too” when his writing ran purple.
As Joshua read on, he tried to loosen his collar but succeeded only in undoing his clip-on bow tie. Starrett snorted. Stumpf stared the boy down; Joshua continued, holding his tie and rushing the finish—the arrival of his father’s body at the funeral home, and the lamp’s unexpected delivery one week later, a miraculous “visitation.”
Mrs. Stumpf led the sixth grade class in applause, re-attached Joshua’s tie as they clapped, and she held him back when he made for his desk. He needed this to stop. He would retreat to anonymity and wouldn’t be smart the rest of the month, wouldn’t raise his hand, wouldn’t know answers, and they’d forget the whole thing.
But she took his hand in hers, raspberry nails and vein-blue skin. “Is it fair to say, Josh, that this lamp embodied your father’s flamboyance?” White-haired and hunched, her thick lenses made her eyes warmer than she was.
“I think so.”
“And Mr. Starrett, tell the class what ‘flamboyant’ means.” She released Joshua and wrote the word in cursive on the blackboard. The effort seemed great for her, engaging her entire torso.
She turned from the blackboard. “Alvin Starrett, do you recall that word from our vocabulary list?”
The boy fidgeted with a pencil, writing on his tabletop with the eraser.
“Tell Mr. Starrett what the word means, Josh.”
“Showy,” he fired back, forgetting to be stupid.
“Good.” She dusted her hands as Joshua returned to his desk. Kosek took the bus. Starrett would be trouble. He walked up the hill and, like Joshua, turned right on University Avenue. He’d let Starrett get ahead, then cut down Andrews Avenue and make his way through the alleys, concrete backyards, and finally the tunnel under his building to the street. He’d peek out. When Starrett passed, he’d run for his apartment building.
“You must have loved your father very much.”
“I know how you feel, writing this. I lost my mother”—her head tremored an involuntary no—“when I was eight.” The room hushed. Her loss took him back to his father, his poem.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Stumpf.”
“And I gather your dad was a flashy dresser?”
Why wouldn’t she leave him alone? “For the band he wore a tuxedo with a silver vest and he always put on a bright-red bow tie and—” Here his voice failed. Starrett or not, there had been a Rudy Gibbons who had no right to die, and on an end table in a tiny Bronx apartment there really was a posthumous arrival, a pineapple lamp, its ceramic glaze three years dull, hardly the picture of flamboyance.
“In any event, we all thank you for this poem, Josh.” She went to her desk, opened the top drawer, took out a clothbound volume, and walked it over to him. In turning to her, he had no choice but to see Starrett and be seen. He brought a hand to his face, scratching his forehead to hide his eyes. “This might inspire more. I’ve marked Wallace Stevens’ Blue Guitar with a paper clip.”
He opened the book, unable to focus as he turned the pages.
“Like you, Stevens found life in a lifeless object.”
“May I go to the boys’ room, Mrs. Stumpf?”
As Joshua raised his desk’s lift-top to stow the book, Starrett whispered something he couldn’t hear, and the students near the windows tittered.
“You’ll shut up,” Stumpf said, “or spend the rest of the year in the principal’s office.”
Joshua, reaching inside his desk, felt for the sharp point of his metal compass.
* * *
The iceball exploded on his face, snapping his eyeglasses and sending pieces across the icy sidewalk. Peeking out, he’d looked right, overestimating Starrett’s progress up the avenue.
He lost time scrambling for his glasses. With Starrett closing, Joshua raced for his building’s front doors and slipped, dropping his books. He dug frantically in his coat pocket for the compass but managed only to stab his palm. When Starrett tackled him, he hit the pavement hard and tasted blood. Starrett forced him over, straddled him, and jammed his knees into Joshua’s armpits.
“Say you’re a stupid little queer.”
Joshua squirmed under the weight and struggled for breath. “I am a stupid little queer,” he managed. Starrett slapped him.
“Say you’re a poetry queer. Shout it!”
“I am a poetry queer.” Ice stung Joshua’s skin where his shirt had pulled out.
“Louder.” Starrett pressed a fist into Joshua’s cheek.
No adults in sight. No hope. “How’s about,” Joshua said, “I go inside and get you two bucks and—”
An arm suddenly strangled Starrett. With both hands he tried to rip free, but next instant he went airborne into a snowbank. Dazed and red-faced, he crawled and stumbled into the Avenue. Bloomers screamed over car horns, “You touch him again, I’ll set you on fire.”
Bloomers—Peter Flynn, a cop’s son from apartment 5B—helped Joshua up. He handed him his books and the pieces of his glasses. “You got yourself a real blubber lip.”
“I’ll be fine.” No, he wouldn’t, not ever. Bloomers, of all people in the world, had to hear that Joshua Gibbons is a poetry queer. Bloomers, an eighth grader who, on a running leap, could clear backyard fences and land gracefully ten feet below; who, with ease, could jump to a fire escape ladder or stuff a basketball. The cheetah of his poem, the leader of the block, had found him pinned under a slob, shouting those things. There would be no way back from that.
“He won’t bother you no more. Why’d he jump you?”
“Who knows?” Joshua climbed the stoop stairs as he spoke. On the verge of crying, he needed to get inside.
“What the hell’s a poetry queer anyhow?”
“He’s just nuts.” Joshua, looking away, stanched blood from his lip with the back of a glove; his one-armed glasses, hooked on an ear, balanced on the bridge of his nose.
“I guess he don’t like your poems.”
“You don’t write poems?”
“Not really, I—”
Bloomers’ smile tightened to a smirk.
Joshua let himself through the entry door, and though the lobby smelled of chicken soup and radiator steam, it gave no comfort. He ran down the hallway, shirt tail out, pants soaked, barely holding his books, arms sore from Starrett’s knees. He pressed an ear against the door of his first floor apartment. The kitchen radio. She was cooking. He used his key and made a dash for the bathroom.
He dumped his books and gloves on the bathroom floor, locked the door, and stifled his sobs, pressing both hands over his mouth. Stupid mother. Stupid Stumpf. Stupid poetry. None of this would have happened if his father were here.
* * *
After Rudy Gibbons’s funeral, Bloomers took an interest in Joshua, picking him out for his team, wrapping his arms around the boy and, with his hands on Joshua’s, showing him how to grip the stickball bat, a taped broom handle. Bloomers rode him on his bike down the Burnside Avenue Hill to Sedgwick Park and, with a Swiss Army knife, made Joshua a bow out of a sumac branch, stringing it with twine, carving Joshua’s name into the handgrip.
Now, though, Bloomers avoided him, Joshua was sure of it. And once, when he chose sides for a game, Bloomers left him for last, saying “I’ll take Mr. Poet.”
Coming home from school, Joshua, seeing Bloomers on the stoop, ducked into the building’s tunnel, ran through it to the basement to take the elevator. The dank, unlit place was Bussie’s lair. According to Bloomers, the superintendent had a metal plate in his head from World War II and had spent years in a state penitentiary for cutting out a man’s tongue.
Joshua prayed for the elevator, pounded the button, and when it finally came, he rushed in and pressed the metal doors closed. At the first floor he tried vainly to slow the doors’ opening, worried Bloomers had come into the lobby.
Later, washing dishes—the kitchen faced the airshaft—he heard Bloomers’ two-fingered whistle, but couldn’t bring himself to answer.
* * *
He promised himself that he wouldn’t write anymore. But a week after the attack, he woke in the dark, needing to unload a story that had formed in his sleep. Aside from school assignments, he’d written only poems before this piece. Decades later, facing a seminar of graduate students behind laptops, he, their well-published professor, would say this may have been the worst fiction ever created.
Under his blanket with a flashlight, red pencil, and loose-leaf, he wrote about Lorena, a sixth grader whose face, arms, and hands had been monstrously scarred in the fire that killed her mother and left her father, an unemployed building superintendent, hopeless and alcoholic. Shortly before being fired from his job, he’d stolen a terrier, Oza, from a tenant who, unknown to his daughter, practiced black arts. Through an accident with a pair of scissors, the dog suffered a deep gash. As Lorena cleaned and bandaged Oza, wherever the blood touched Lorena’s skin, her scars instantly vanished. After a thorough wash—the dog barely survived the bloodletting—she became the school beauty.
The magic was, however, dark, and as time passed, she paid a price. In the middle of a school play, in the starring role, she experience monumental incontinence and had to be carried from the stage, soaking and soiled, doubled over with cramps and chills. That, however, was nothing:
One night in the bathtub, she reached through the bubbles and felt a small thing that poked out from between her legs—it was hard and smooth like a pepper.
It horrified her, but where could she turn? She had a drunken father, a dead mother, and, after the school play, no friends.
The bright red thing grew longer and thicker, ripening and wrinkling. Thick black hairs appeared around it, like weeds around a poison rose.
At the age of twelve, he wrote, Lorena had grown a penis. She thought of cutting it off or diving off the top of her apartment building.
As the words rushed in, Joshua’s writing hand grew stiff. The sound of the bathroom shower signaled that his mother would soon wake him for school. He had to finish. His pencil had dulled; he spit on the tip and scraped it sharper with his thumbnail. He’d compress the story, flesh it out later. Maybe there’d be a doctor in it or a scene at a circus. He needed an ending.
One day her father saw her in the shower and said, “My God, I always wanted a son!!” He hugged and kissed her, and Lorena cried with joy and told him about using the dog’s blood and so on. The father said, “I knew Oza was magical, but I didn’t know how to use its powers. You found the way.”
“And,” Lorena asked, “what will you call me, now that I’m a boy?”
Joshua, finally grasping the point of his story, flipped to the beginning of his piece and frantically scratched out each Lorena, replacing it with Alveena.
“I’ll call you Alvin,” said the father, Mr. Starrett.
Joshua printed the title in block letters: ALVEENA’S PEPPER.
His mother tapped at the door. He shoved the loose-leaf under his pillow and faked a yawn when she came in.
* * *
That night Joshua did the dinner dishes while his mother watched Lawrence Welk in the living room, sipping vodka, waiting for the barber to pick her up for dinner.
He turned the water to a drizzle and listened for Bloomers’ whistle over an accordion polka that seeped through the plaster wall. Nothing. He pressed his forehead against the cold, fogged glass, cleared a patch with his hand. Fat, slow snowflakes drifted in and out of the light cast by windows into the airshaft. No Bloomers.
He forced up the sash, leaned over the window guard, and ignoring cold air and in-blown flakes, cried out for Bloomers. The snow swallowed his voice. He shouted again, louder and higher. Nothing. He lowered the window and returned to his chore.
Anyway, what would he say?
He pulled a skillet from the suds and scrubbed it with iron wool. When he finished the pot, he scoured and re-scoured the sink. After that he dried the items in the dish rack, put silverware into drawer slots, and stacked plates in the cabinet, slowly.
Out of tasks, he switched off the overhead fluorescent, sat on a chair near the open kitchen door, and stared at the black window, finally aware he’d been hoping for Bloomers all day and night, confused by the ache. One room over the Lennon Sisters harmonized Mickey Mouse Mambo, and he could see the play of television light on the hallway wall.
Bloomers whistled. Joshua threw up the window.
“Whoa, Joshy, I’m skiing!” Bloomers, two stories down, skidded around a trash can with his tongue out to catch flakes. He wore only a hooded Yankee shirt with cut-off sleeves and high-top sneakers. “Where you been?” Bloomers packed snow with his bare hands and tossed one up. There was nothing more important than catching it. Joshua stretched from the window, but the snowball powdered against the outside wall.
“My fault, Josh.”
The next one hung long enough. He bobbled it, locked his fingers around it, and brought it in.
“I knew you could. I knew it.”
The praise excited the air. “I got something for you,” Joshua yelled. “Wait for me.” He raced past his mother on the couch, grabbed the loose-leaf from his bedroom, and passed her again.
“Where you going so fast?” She seemed distracted, lost in the show, waiting for her friend, lighting a cigarette on another.
He let the door slam.
* * *
Bloomers chewed as he read under a bare, hanging bulb, exhaling Juicy Fruit into the chill basement room. The elevator groaned on the other side of a cinderblock wall.
Without looking up, Bloomers handed over pages as he finished them, and Joshua followed his chews and pops—fast was promising and slow, cause for concern.
Everything was at risk. But this was different from poems with precious turns of phrase. This was penises, vaginas, and a magic dog. This was wrapping your fingers around a bat and cracking one over the roof.
They sat on overturned garbage cans in a room lit by a bare bulb where Mr. Bussie kept discarded bikes, carpets, bundled newspapers, and empty cans.
Bloomers finished the last page and examined Joshua, deadpan, chewing slowly. “This”—he held the last page to the light—“is the most incredible story ever written.” He paused for a deep, long, gum-scented belch, wrapped an arm around Joshua, and held him close.
“A little, growing dick. Like a pepper. Did you like that?” Joshua’s head was tight to Bloomers’ chest and he spoke from inside the hug.
“The best, Joshy.”
“And the ending?”
“Amazing.” He ruffled Joshua’s hair.
The courtyard door creaked. Air shifted. At a distance Mr. Bussie wondered out loud who the fuck was in his basement. Without hesitating Bloomers unscrewed the bulb and they crouched in the blackness behind bundles of newspaper. The super limped past, slurring curses, and faded down the hallway. At Bloomers’ signal, they ran, Bussie at the rear, crashing, threatening.
* * *
Before Joshua went to sleep that night, he brought his loose-leaf into the bathroom and opened it on the sink. He flipped through his subject tabs, ripping out all of his poems and verse fragments. Shredding pages. Flushing. This can be your music. Flushing. The Pineapple Lamp, the delivery of his father’s casket—confetti in the water’s whirl.
He was back with Bloomers now, in his strong, smooth arms, his breath sweet and close.